In this spring’s Writer’s Studio creative nonfiction class, author and teacher-extraordinaire Lauren Cowen talked on the first night about the irony of this genre—it being described by what it isn’t. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for professional wordsmiths, but from the start we know it’s not fiction. Yet, it still doesn’t tell those who don’t understand the genre anything about it. Some will come to a conclusion like, “Oh, so you just write essays like in high school,” then become a little less impressed with us and prouder of themselves. “Yeah, just essays because they’re so easy. Lord knows capturing the truth, making it compelling and universal, couldn’t be more effortless,” is my kindest retort, occurring only on days bordering on me being comatose.
I have pages of notes on the many eloquent ways Lauren explained creative nonfiction. Nuggets of wisdom include, “it’s a pact between the writer and the reader, a process of discovery” and “credibility is key, it has to have happened, it has to be emotionally true and factually true.” She spoke of its difficulties: “It alludes paraphrase, it yields and it complicates,” and she talked about its governing intent, “dwelling in the world you do know to find out what you don’t know.” She spoke of wrestling with a story’s “aboutness,” drafting and redrafting, always rooting for the story you want to tell, bearing witness to the details and the subtext, weaving in research and authority from emotion and events to write clearly and honestly. And all this from the first night.
Our winter semester’s teacher, reporter and author Kevin Davis had us read the latest book from the “Godfather” of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind. Writer James Wolcott of Vanity Fair magazine had ridiculed the genre and Gutkind, who publishes the magazine Creative Nonfiction, by calling him the Godfather. But it eventually backfired on Wolcott, as the genre is often referenced as the literature of reality. And while Gutkind is famous for insisting he’s not the creative nonfiction police, his insistence for truth and fact-finding, credibility and correctness offer strict boundaries.
Kevin, too, had a wealth of insights to help define the genre. He spoke of how small moments reveal universal truths, and, therefore, the importance of remembering details and expressing them carefully are paramount. His discussions on structuring creative nonfiction is invaluable. Character descriptions that give readers a hunger for what’s at stake in the story, scenes and dialogue that move it forward, research grounding us further in the facts, private and intimate knowledge—these are the pieces that connect experiences and make the truth more compelling, transforming and revealing than any other kind of storytelling.
Still, we learn in all our classes and in personal experiences that some who claim to be creative nonfiction writers will play loose with the truth. It can be as seemingly innocent as thinking that changing a minor detail will make a sentence sound more lyrical. James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, revealing how he rehabilitated himself from alcohol, drugs and crime rocketed him to success when Oprah Winfrey featured him on her show. After some easy fact-checking revealed Frey’s fabrications, his public humiliation focused a powerful light on the most essential requirement of the genre. Creative nonfiction must be true, not truthy, not composites of real events. The authentic retelling of small or large moments is mandatory.
Creative nonfiction may be the most potent genre because truth is power. The genre is certainly among the most challenging to write because many truths are tough to relive regardless of one’s wealth, color, gender or culture. As a result, the courage to use truth to retell stories has, in worst cases, the power to reveal atrocities and stop us from repeating them. In best case scenarios, the truth gives faces to vulnerabilities, connecting people and ideas, thereby making it more difficult for inequity and intolerance to spread.
Changing a detail because it adds a little more interest to a story or opens up possible misinterpretations of the bigger story is wrong. And it’s unnecessary. Fix a creative nonfiction piece by writing the truth or simply call your story fiction. Because there is no creative nonfiction police, it’s up to the writing community to police itself. Gutkind says, “More than in any other literary genre, the creative nonfiction writer must rely on his or her own conscience and sensitivity to others and display a higher mortality and a healthy respect for fairness and justice… Write both for art’s sake and for humanity’s sake.”
There’s a lot at stake.